The Art of Hand-Drawn Japanese Anime: A Deep Study of How Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira Uses Light

Animation before the days of modern computer graphics technology may impress today for the very reason that it had no modern computer graphics technology, or CGI, at its disposal. But if we really think about it — and we really watch the animated masterpieces of those days — we'll realize that much of it should impress us on many more levels than it already does. Take, for instance, Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 cyberpunk vision Akira, one of the most beloved Japanese animated films of all time and the subject of the Nerdwriter video essay above, "How to Animate Light."

Akira, says Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, "is well known for its painstaking animation. Every frame of the film was composed with the closest attention to detail, and that gives it an unmatched richness and soul."

But he points up one quality of the production in particular: "I see the film's many lights, their different qualities and textures, as a powerful motif and symbol, and a vital element of its genius." But animators, especially animators using traditional hand-painted cels, can't just tell their directors of photography to set up a scene's lighting in a certain way; they've got to render all the different types of light in the world they create by hand, manually creating its play on every face, every object, every surface.

"The lines between shadow and light are distinct and evocative in the same way that film noir lighting is," Puschak elaborates, "and like in film noir, light in Akira is intimately connected to the city at night." In the dystopian "Neo-Tokyo" of 2019, elaborately crafted by Otomo and his collaborators, "authority is as much a blinding spotlight as it is a gun or a badge" and neon "is the bitter but beautiful light that signifies both the colorful radiance and the gaudy consumerism of modernity." And then we have Tetsuo, "at once the protagonist and the antagonist of the film, a boy who gains extraordinary psychic power" that "so often produces a disruption in the light around him." When the end comes, it comes in the form of "a giant ball of light, one single uniform white light that erases the countless artificial lights of the city," and Akira makes us believe in it. Could even the most cutting-edge, spectacularly big-budgeted CGI-age picture do the same?

Related Content:

The Philosophy, Storytelling & Visual Creativity of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Anime Film, Explained in Video Essays

The Existential Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop, the Cult Japanese Anime Series, Explored in a Thoughtful Video Essay

How the Films of Hayao Miyazaki Work Their Animated Magic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

The Origins of Anime: Watch Free Online 64 Animations That Launched the Japanese Anime Tradition

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Power of Introverts: Author Susan Cain Explains Why We Need to Appreciate the Talents & Abilities of the Quiet Ones

Ours is a loud culture of nonstop personal sharing, endless chatter, and 24-hour news, opinion, and entertainment. Even those people who prefer reading alone to the overstimulating carnival of social media feel pressured to participate. How else can you keep up with your family—whose Facebook posts you’d rather see die than have to read? How else to build a profile for employers—whom you desperately hope won’t check your Twitter feed?

For the introvert, maintaining an always-on façade can be profoundly enervating—and the problem goes far beyond the personal, argues author Susan Cain, reaching into every area of our lives.

“If you take a group of people and put them into a meeting,” says Cain in the short RSA video above, “the opinions of the loudest person, or the most charismatic person, or the most assertive person—those are the opinions that the group tends to follow.” This despite the fact that research shows “zero correlation” between being the loudest voice in the room and having the best ideas. Don’t we know this all too well.

Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about leadership for introverts, the group least likely to want the social demands leadership requires. And yet, she argues, we nonetheless need introverts as leaders. “We’re living in a society now that is so overly extroverted,” she says. Cain identifies the phenomenon as a symptom of corporate capitalism overcoming predominantly agricultural ways of life. Aside from the significant question of whether we can change the culture without changing the economy, Cain makes a timely and compelling argument for a society that values different personality types equally.

But can there be a “world where it’s yin and yang” between introverts and extroverts? That depends, perhaps on how much credence we lend these well-worn Jungian categories, or whether we think of them as existing in binary opposition rather than on a spectrum, a circle, a hexagram, or whatever. Cain is not a psychologist but a former corporate lawyer who at least seems to believe the balancing act between extroverted and introverted can be achieved in the corporate world. She has given talks on “Networking for Introverts,” addressed the engineers at Google, and taken to the TED stage, the thought leader arena that accommodates all kinds of personalities, for better or worse.

Cain's TED talk above may be one of the better ones. Opening with a moving and funny personal narrative, she walks us through the barrage of messages introverts receive condemning their desire for quietude as somehow perverse and selfish. Naturally solitary people are taught to think of their introversion as "a second-class personality trait," Cain writes in her book, "somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." Introverts must swim against the tide to be themselves. “Our most important institutions," she says above, "our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts, and for extroverts' need for stimulation.”

The bias is deep, reaching into the classrooms of young children, who are now forced to do most of their work by committee. But when introverts give in to the social pressure that forces them into awkward extroverted roles, the loss affects everyone. “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Cain says, “when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.” Paradoxically, that can look like introverts taking the helm, but out of a genuine sense of duty rather than a desire for the spotlight.

Introverted leaders are more likely to share power and give others space to express ideas, Cain argues. Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks exemplify such introverted leadership, and a quieter, more balanced and thoughtful culture would produce more leaders like them. Maybe this is a proposition anyone can endorse, whether they prefer Friday nights with hot tea and a novel or in the crush and bustle of the crowds.

Related Content:

Carl Jung Explains His Groundbreaking Theories About Psychology in a Rare Interview (1957)

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hallelujah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chronological Playlist (1967-2016)

Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.

Perhaps no one since Thomas Hardy has matched Leonard Cohen in the dogged persistence of literary bleakness. Cohen’s entry into a Zen monastery in 1996 was a “response to a sense of despair that I’ve always had,” he said in an interview that year. Ten years later, Cohen told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. And the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt.”

Only a handful of people on the planet have experienced the “life of chaos” Leonard Cohen lived as an acclaimed poet, novelist, singer, and one of the most beloved songwriters of the last several decades. But millions identify with his emotional turmoil. Cohen’s expressions of despair—and of reverence, defiance, love, hatred, and lust—speak across generations, telling truths few of us confess but, just maybe, everybody knows. Cohen's death last year brought his career back into focus. And despite the mournful occasion for revisiting his work, he may be just the songwriter many of us need right now.

The great themes in Cohen’s work come together in his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which has, since he first recorded it in 1984 to little notice, become “everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,’” writes Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic, in a succession of covers and interpretations from Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright to Shrek and The X Factor. It is here that the depths of despair and heights of transcendence meet, the sexual and the spiritual reach an accord: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled,” Cohen has said of the song. “But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”

Everybody knows it’s a mess. But it often takes a Leonard Cohen to convince us that—at least sometimes—it’s a beautiful one. If you feel you need more Leonard Cohen in your life, we bring you the playlist above, a complete chronological discography available on Spotify—from the sparse, haunting folk melodies of Cohen’s first album, 1967’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen to last year’s gripping swan song, You Want It Darker. In-between the legendary debut and masterful summation are several live albums, the classics Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, and others, as well as that odd 1988 album I’m Your Man, in which Cohen set his grim ironies and universal truths to the sounds of eighties synth-pop, intoning over slap bass and drum machine the indelible, gently mocking lyrics he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson:

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Related Content:

Say Goodbye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Other Tracks

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Interview: Recorded by David Remnick of The New Yorker

A 17-Hour, Chronological Journey Through Tom Petty’s Music: Stream the Songs That Became the Soundtracks of Our Lives

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch The Idea, the First Animated Film to Grapple with Big, Philosophical Ideas (1932)

A vague sense of disquiet settled over Europe in the period between World War I and World War II. As the slow burn of militant ultranationalism mingled with jingoist populism, authoritarian leaders and fascist factions found mounting support among a citizenry hungry for certainty. Europe’s growing trepidation fostered some of the 20th century’s most striking painterly, literary, and cinematic depictions of the totalitarianism that would soon follow. It was almost inevitable that this period would see the birth of the first deeply philosophical animated film, known as The Idea.

The Idea first emerged as a wordless novel in 1920, drawn by Frans Masereel. Masereel, a close friend of Dadaist and New Objectivist artist George Grosz, had created a stark, black-and-white story about the indomitable nature of ideas. Employing thick, aggressive lines obtained through woodcut printing, Masereel depicted a conservative political order’s fight against the birth of a new idea, which eventually flourished in spite of the establishment’s relentless attempts to suppress it.

Setting to work in 1930, a Czech film-maker named Berthold Bartosch spent two years animating The Idea. Bartosch’s visual style remained true to Masereel’s harsh, vivid lines. His version of the story, however, took a decidedly bleaker turn—one that was more reminiscent of the writings of his compatriot, Franz Kafka. Whereas Masereel believed that the purity of good ideas would overwhelm their opposition, Bartosch, working a decade closer to the Nazis' ascendancy, was wary of such idealism.

Above, you can watch what film historian William Moritz has called "the first animated film created as an artwork with serious, even tragic, social and philosophical themes." Paired with a haunting score composed by Arthur Honegger, the 25-minute animation is a powerfully moving meditation on art, struggle, purity of thought, and populist savagery that remains untarnished after eight decades.

You can find other great animations in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in November, 2013. It was written by Ilia Blinderman. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

Related Content:

Watch Franz Kafka, the Wonderful Animated Film by Piotr Dumala

Orson Welles Narrates Animation of Plato’s Cave Allegory

The Tale of the Fox: Watch Ladislas Starevich’s Animation of Goethe’s Great German Folktale (1937)

Criterion Collection Films 50% Off for the Next 13 Hours: Get Great Films at Half Price

FYI. For the next 13 hours, the Criterion Collection is running a flash sale (click here), giving you a chance to purchase "all in-stock Blu-rays & DVDs at 50% off." Just use the promo code COOP and get classic films by Hitchcock, Lynch, Welles, Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, and many others.

A-ha Performs a Beautiful Acoustic Version of Their 1980s Hit, “Take on Me”: Recorded Live in Norway

When the Norwegian synthpop band A-ha recorded "Take on Me" in 1984, the song didn't meet instant success. It took recording two different versions of the track, and releasing it three separate times, before the song managed to climb the charts, peaking at #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

Since then, the song has enjoyed a pretty fine afterlife. It has clocked nearly 500 million plays on YouTube. You'll find it on countless 1980s anthologies and playlists. And now you can watch an entirely new performance of the song, which has already gone viral on YouTube. Recorded this past June in Norway, as part of an unplugged concert for MTV, this version is more subtle and melancholy than the original. And, as many Youtube commenters readily note, it's rather beautiful.

Find more details about the performance on A-ha's website.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

New Order’s “Blue Monday” Played with Obsolete 1930s Instruments

1980s Metalhead Kids Are All Right: New Study Suggests They Became Well-Adjusted Adults

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

An Animated Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

Considered the first great humanist essayist, Michel de Montaigne was also the first to use the word “essay” for the casual, often meandering, frequently first-person explorations that now constitute the most prevalent literary form of our day. "Anyone who sets out to write an essay,” notes Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times, “for a school or college class,” a magazine, newspaper, Tumblr, or otherwise, “owes something” to Montaigne, the French “magistrate and landowner near Bordeaux who retired temporarily from public life in 1570 to spend more time with his library and to make a modest memento of his mind.”

Montaigne's resulting book, called the Essais—"trials” or “attempts”—exemplifies the classical and Christian preoccupations of the Renaissance; he dwelt intently on questions of character and virtue, both individual and civic, and he constantly refers to ancient authorities, the companions of his book-lined fortress of solitude. “Somewhat like a link-infested blog post,” writes Gottlieb, “Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations.” But he was also a distinctly modern writer, who skewered the overconfidence and blind idealism of ancients and contemporaries alike, and looked with amusement on faith in reason and progress.

For all his considerable erudition, Montaigne was “keen to debunk the pretensions of learning,” says Alain de Botton in his introductory School of Life video above. An “extremely funny” writer, he shares with countryman François Rabelais a satirist's delight in the vulgar and taboo and an honest appraisal of humanity’s checkered relationship with the good life. Though we may call Montaigne a moralist, the description should not imply that he was strictly orthodox in any way—quite the contrary.

Montaigne’s ethics often defy the dogma of both the Romans and the Christians. He strenuously opposed colonization, for example, and made a sensible case for cannibalism as no more barbarous a practice than those engaged in by 16th century Europeans.

In a contrarian essay, “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”—its title a quotation from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations—Montaigne threads the needle between memento mori high seriousness and offhand witticism, writing, “Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear.” But in the next sentence, he avows that we derive pleasure “more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.”

The greatest benefit of practicing virtue, as Cicero recommends, is "the contempt of death," which frees us to live fully. Montaigne attacks the modern fear and denial of death as a paralyzing attitude. Instead, “we should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go,” he breezily suggests. “The deadest deaths are the best.... I want death to find me planting cabbages." The irreverence he brought to the gravest of subjects—making, for example, a list of sudden and ridiculous deaths of famous people—serves not only to entertain but to edify, as de Botton argues above in an episode of his series “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.”

Montaigne “seemed to understand what makes us feel bad about ourselves, and in his book tries to make us feel better." He endeavors to show, as he wrote in his first essay, "that men by various means arrive at the same end." Like later first-person philosophical essayists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Montaigne addresses our feelings of inadequacy by reminding his readers how thoroughly we are governed by the same irrational passions, and subject to the same fears, conceits, and ailments. There is much wisdom and comfort to be found in Montaigne’s essays. Yet he is beloved not only for what he says, but for how he says it—with a style that makes him seem like an eloquent, brilliant, practical, and self-deprecatingly sympathetic friend.

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Goethe, Germany’s “Renaissance Man”

Watch Animated Introductions to 25 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

6 Political Theorists Introduced in Animated “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen King’s 22 Favorite Movies: Full of Horror & Suspense

In 1999, Stephen King found himself confined to a hospital room "after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road." There, "roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers," and surely more than a little bored, he popped a movie into the room's VCR. But it didn't take long before its cinematic power got the better of him: "I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on."

The movie on King's bootleg tape ("How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it") was The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's ultra-low-budget horror picture that sent shockwaves through the independent film world at the end of the millennium.

Though nobody seems to talk much about it anymore, let alone watch it, King's appreciation has endured: he wrote the essay about it quoted here in 2010, and you can read it in full at Bloody Disgusting. That same site has also published a list of fifteen horror movies King has personally recommendedBlair Witch and beyond.

The list below combines King's picks at Bloody Disgusting, which lean toward recent films, with a different selection of favorites, with a stronger focus on classics, published just last month at the British Film Institute. "I am especially partial – this will not surprise you – to suspense films," the author of CarrieCujo, and It writes by way of introduction," but "my favorite film of all time – this may surprise you — is Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Some may argue that the Clouzot film is better; I beg to disagree."

  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016)  "Visceral horror to rival Alien and early Cronenberg"
  • The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
  • The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)
  • Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)
  • Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) "Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast moving terrorists who never quit."
  • Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)
  • The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
  • Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971) "His most inventive film, and stripped to the very core."
  • Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) "He out-Hitchcocked Hitchcock."
  • Final Destination (James Wong, 2000)
  • Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997) "Basically a Lovecraftian terror tale in outer space with a The Quatermass Experiment vibe, done by the Brits."
  • The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986 and Dave Meyers, 2007) "Rutger Hauer in the original will never be topped, but this is that rarity, a reimagining that actually works."
  • The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)
  • The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
  • Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) "The horror here is pretty understated, until the very end."
  • The Ruins (Carter Smith, 2008)
  • Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
  • Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1986)
  • Stir of Echoes (David Koepp 1999) "An unsettling exploration of what happens when an ordinary blue-collar guy (Kevin Bacon) starts to see ghosts."
  • The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
  • Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) As far as "British horror (wrapped in an SF bow), you can’t do much better."
  • The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

Though clearly a movie fan, King also shows a willingness to advocate where many a cineaste fears to tread, for instance in his selection of not just Sorcerer but several other remakes besides (and in the case of The Hitcher, both the remake and the original). He even chooses the 2004 Dawn of the Dead — directed by no less an object of critical scorn than Zack Snyder — over the 1978 George A. Romero original.

But then, King has always seemed to pride himself in his understanding of and rootedness in unpretentious, working class America, which you can see in his novels, the various film adaptations of his novels that have come out over the years, and the sole movie he wrote and directed himself: 1986's Maximum Overdrive, about machines turning against their human masters at a North Carolina truck stop. King now describes that project as a "moron movie," but as he clearly understands, even a moron movie can make a powerful impact.

Related Content:

Stephen King’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Books

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

What Makes a Good Horror Movie? The Answer Revealed with a Journey Through Classic Horror Films Clips

Martin Scorsese Names the 11 Scariest Horror Films

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

The Daily Habits of Famous Writers: Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Boston Public Library Will Digitize & Put Online 200,000+ Vintage Records

It may be a great irony that our age of cultural destruction and—many would argue—decline also happens to be a golden age of preservation, thanks to the very new media and big data forces credited with dumbing things down. We spend ample time contemplating the losses; archival initiatives like The Great 78 Project, like so many others we regularly feature here, should give us reasons to celebrate.

In a post this past August, we outlined the goals and methods of the project. Centralized at the Internet Archive—that magnanimous citizens’ repository of digitized texts, recordings, films, etc.—the project contains several thousand carefully preserved 78rpm recordings, which document the distinctive sounds of the early 20th century from 1898 to the late-1950s.

Thanks to partners like preservation company George Blood, L.P. and the ARChive of Contemporary Music, we can hear many thousands of records from artists both famous and obscure in the original sound of the first mass-produced consumer audio format.

Just a few days ago, the Internet Archive announced that they would be joined in the endeavor by the Boston Public Library, who, writes Wendy Hanamura, “will digitize, preserve” and make available to the public “hundreds of thousands of audio recordings in a variety of historical formats,” including not only 78s, but also LP’s and Thomas Edison’s first recording medium, the wax cylinder. “These recordings have never been circulated and were in storage for several decades, uncatalogued and inaccessible to the public.”

The process, notes WBUR, “could take a few years,” given the sizable bulk of the collection and the meticulous methods of the Internet Archive’s technicians, who labor to preserve the condition of the often fragile materials, and to produce a number of different versions, “from remastered to raw.” The object, says Boston Public Library president David Leonard, is to “produce recordings in a way that’s interesting to the casual listener as well as to the hard-core music listener in the research business.”

Thus far, only two recordings from BPL’s extensive collections have become available—a 1938 recording called “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music)” by W. Lee O’Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys and Edvard Grieg’s only piano concerto, recorded by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra in 1947. Even in this tiny sampling, you can see the range of material the archive will feature, consistent with the tremendous variety the Great 78 Project already contains.

While we can count it as a great gain to have free and open access to this historic vault of recorded audio, it is also the case that digital archiving has become an urgent bulwark against total loss. Current recording formats instantly spawn innumerable copies of themselves. The physical media of the past existed in finite numbers and are subject to total erasure with time. “The simple fact of the matter,” archivist George Blood tells the BPL, “is most audiovisual recordings will be lost. These 78s are disappearing left and right. It is important that we do a good job preserving what we can get to, because there won’t be a second chance.”

via WBUR

Related Content:

25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Professionally Digitized & Streaming Online: A Treasure Trove of Early 20th Century Music

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Recordings: World & Classical Music, Interviews, Nature Sounds & More

BBC Launches World Music Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read Virginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Virginia Woolf dissuaded readers from playing the critic in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” But in addition to her novels, she is best known for her literary criticism and became a foundational figure in feminist literary theory for her imaginative polemic “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay that takes traditional criticism to task for its presumptions of male literary superiority.

Women writers like herself, she argues, had always been a privileged few with the means and the freedom to pursue writing in ways most women couldn’t. These conditions were so rare for women throughout literary history that innumerable artists may have gone unnoticed and unheralded for their lack of opportunity. Her observation would have put her readers in mind of Thomas Gray’s revered “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” with its famous line about a pauper's grave: “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.”

Woolf alludes to the poem, writing of “some mute and inglorious Jane Austen,” and makes a case that would-have-been women writers were exceptionally marginalized by gender—by its intersections with power and privilege and their lack. She famously constructed a scenario—brought into pop culture by The Smiths and Bananarama singer Siobhan Fahey—involving Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith, whose talent and ambition are squashed for the sake of her brother’s education. It is hardly a far-fetched idea. We might remember Mozart’s sister Nannerl, who was also a child prodigy, whose career ended with her childhood, and who disappeared in her brother’s shadow.

In the TED-Ed video at the top, Woolf scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin Iseult Gillespie describes the import of Woolf’s thought experiment. Shakespeare’s sister stands in for every woman who is pushed into domestic labor and marriage while the men in her family pursue their goals unhindered. “Woolf demonstrates the tragedy of genius restricted,” just as Langston Hughes would do a couple decades later. Her particular genius, says Gillespie, lies in her ability to portray “the internal experience of alienation…. Her characters frequently live inner lives that are deeply at odds with their external existence.”

The video outlines Woolf’s own biography: her inclusion in the “Bloomsbury Group”—a social circle including E.M. Forster and Virginia's soon-to-be husband Leonard Woolf. And it sketches out the innovative  literary techniques of her novels. Woolf thought of herself, as Alain de Botton says in his short introduction above, as a “distinctively modernist writer at odds with a raft of the staid and complacent assumptions of 19th century English literature.” One such assumption, as she writes in “A Room of One’s Own,” includes an opinion that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.”

Woolf’s own modernist breakthroughs rival those of her contemporaries James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Her favorite women writers rank as highly as men in the same canon in any serious study; but this is of course beside the point. It wasn’t the truth or falsehood of claims about women’s inferiority that determined their power, but rather the social power of those who made such claims.

Domineering fathers, spotlight-stealing brothers, moralizing clergymen, the gatekeeping intellectuals of “Oxbridge”—Woolf’s portmanteau for the snobbery and chauvinism of Oxford and Cambridge dons: it was such men who determined not only whether or not a woman might pursue her writing, but whether she lived or died in penury, mute and inglorious. Woolf knew much of what she wrote, having grown up surrounded by the cream of 19th-century literary society, and having had to “steal an education from her father’s study,” as de Botton notes, while her brothers went off to Cambridge. She was nonetheless well aware of her privilege and used it not only to create new forms of writing, but to open new literary spaces for women writers to come.

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Virginia Woolf

The Steamy Love Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925-1929)

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





  • Great Lectures

  • FREE UPDATES!

    GET OUR DAILY EMAIL

    Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.



    FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA

  • About Us

    Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.


    Advertise With Us

  • Archives

  • Quantcast